“Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity.” Marshall McLuhan
Look at the prevailing organizing principles of society throughout history. The family was undoubtedly the first grouping or combination of people… mother, father and their children the only members. They were probably an introverted, selfishly focused unit that worked together and alone, to survive. Feed the family and ward off predators. Let others fend for themselves.
Though overly simplistic and full of supposition, it isn’t hard to imagine the “family” growing to include not only the parents and siblings but also grandchildren, cousins, and a few stragglers. At the dawn of agrarian societies ten thousand years ago, whole groups of these extended families banded together to form “villages”. Alliances with other nearby villages gave rise to the notion of tribes – groups of people that had a common language, similar features, diet, clothing, beliefs… in other words, the same culture. This tribal affiliation would ultimately define the identity of each member answering the question “who are you?”
As tribes grew they created alliances with other tribes, but the tribal mentality persisted…and was usually defined by the dominant tribe. Soon ideas of “race” emerged despite the purity of tribes being continually diluted by newcomers. The “old pure became the new pure”, think about Britain’s mix of Celts, Romans, Vikings, Normans. Larger groupings developed into cities, and soon city-states that controlled large swaths of land developed. Race and a religion were the defining character of these new entities… different races from prisoners captured during wars, were enslaved and eventually integrated. The tribe grew.
Given this timeline it is not surprising that Nation States have only come on the scene relatively recently; just a few hundred years ago. Various cities and tribes were then unified into countries. Diverse groups came to identify with their newly born state. It was a new kind of super-tribe all assembled under one ruling elite which were absolute monarchies with the help of a privileged few. As the populace became more educated different forms of government emerged. The most revered of these was called “democracy”, which had its antecedents in ancient Greece. In the modern world it has become the most enlightened way to govern a nation. Rule is established by the wishes of the majority of the people…by the people for the people. Citizen rights and common societal values came to define nations. Yet despite this progression towards fairer and more balanced governing the last vestiges of tribalism have not diminished appreciably. There might be less identity with race and religion, explicitly at least, but this has been replaced by symbols, like flags, a common history and feelings of superiority often due to economic and/or military power. The belief that your tribe is the best is now called “patriotism”. At its worse it is bathed in jingoistic rhetoric and, at times, aggressive action. The idea that one country stands out in its cultural differences as a beacon to the rest of the word is mostly wrong-headed. For example, the idea of “U.S. Exceptionalism.” Bullock, thanks to Trump.
McLuhan thought our new electronic media might bridge this tribal divide by linking everyone together into a kind of “global village”. So far a greater union of nations, and less patriotism, has not occurred. In fact, more factionalism has prevailed in various countries, and political and religious fanatics seem to be breeding like rabbits everywhere while ethnic (tribal) allegiances are strengthening. These developments all seem counter intuitive given the widespread information available today. People should be better informed, more tolerant and less opinionated… instead minds are more closed than ever in many parts of the world. The sense of “my tribe” prevails as more and more countries fall apart and get stuck in civil wars or have increasingly strong separatist movements. The historical trend of ever larger groupings of people is reversing – this organizing principle is in free fall in the Middle East, Africa, Indonesia, and other parts of the world. The global village is starting to look fragmented and small. Broken not whole.
This brings me back to our opening quote from McLuhan. Does Canada really know how to do without an identity? Can we escape a tribal mentality? As a Canadian I’m certainly proud to see “us” not marred by patriotism. * In many ways we are humble and peaceful people that are satisfied with our rules, values and sense of order. We say “thanks” a lot… because we have lots to say thanks about, I believe. Our rather grand experiment as a nation is called “multiculturalism”. We are trying to allow diverse cultures without shared history, develop and thrive in one big grouping of people…in a place called Canada. The minimal “glue” that holds us together is a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, along with an agreement by all to accept that Charter. Our chances of surviving and thriving, without a strong identity, in one geographical area that is bordered by three oceans and a powerful chauvinistic neighbour, is pretty good I think. I’m hopeful, at least.
As rock star and peace ambassador Bono once said,
“The world needs more Canada”
*Many will see the irony in me boasting about Canada and saying it could be a beacon to the world. Sounds kind of patriotic! C’est la vie.